Performers putting on stage makeup in theater dressing rooms.

Jacob Lawrence

American, 1917–2000

Makeup (Dressing Room), 1952

Egg tempera on hardboard

20 x 24 inches

Signed and dated lower right

Between 1951 and 1952, Lawrence experimented with a new body of work, exploring the theme of performance. With Downtown Gallery employee, Charles Alan, Lawrence visited the Apollo Theater on 125th Street, and other nightclubs, theaters, and vaudeville in Harlem for inspiration. Lawrence recalled the importance of the Apollo Theater for the Harlem community, “One of the most vivid forms of recreation that I had, as many in the community had, was visiting the Apollo Theater, and the Apollo became an institution in the community. There were the comedians, there were the chorus girls, and there were the big bands. And I would go once, they would change the show every two weeks I think, and I would go, and you would hear the comedians.” (Jacob Lawrence in a tape-recorded interview with Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Seattle, Washington, October 3, 1992, The Phillips Collection Archives, Washington, DC)

Lawrence painted a twelve-work series based on these visits and exhibited the works in his final solo show at The Downtown Gallery in 1953 titled, Performance: A New Series of Paintings in Tempera by Jacob Lawrence. The Performance paintings were Lawrence’s sixth series exhibited at The Downtown Gallery since his debut there in 1941, and the exhibition earned the artist both critical and commercial success. Unlike the previous series, however, the twelve Performance works were not linked through a narrative reading. Instead, they were powerfully connected through their shared themes of illusion, role playing, identity, and games. The works range in subjects found in the entertainment industry from a children’s Christmas pageant, a Broadway nightclub, and a pair of vaudeville performers.

The present work, Makeup, depicts a private moment of downtime for a group of actors or musicians in a backstage dressing room either in preparation for a show, or immediately following a performance. In the foreground, a blue-haired woman draped in a blue robe is engaged in a game of cards with the man opposite her. Card playing and games were frequent subjects for Lawrence from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Beyond the central scene, four figures in the background gaze into a row of dressing mirrors decorated with envelopes and letters. The reflections reveal the tuxedo-clad figures wearing masks resembling the highly stylized Mbunda masks, worn by the Mbunda people of Africa (present-day Southeast Angola). African masks were firmly rooted in the visual culture of Harlem beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. Lawrence himself was drawn to African masks early in his career while studying with Charles Alston at Utopia House, and he later constructed three-dimensional papier-máché forms at the Harlem Art Workshop. Lawrence would explore the depiction of masks throughout the course of his career.

The masks in Makeup display characteristic round forms with articulated facial details, and each capture a complex range of emotions from melancholy, sorrow, apathy, and angst. Lawrence painted the scene with a prism of expressive colors and dynamic, geometric shapes to evoke the wood grain of the dressing mirrors and the kaleidoscopic folds in the actor’s robes. Makeup, and other works from this period are among his most abstract, during a time when many artists shifted towards abstraction during the post war era.

Performers putting on stage makeup in theater dressing rooms.